I’m currently surrounded by over a dozen books and a dozen gadgets and gizmos I’m actively using andor could be using right now.
I’m guessing your environment looks similar to mine unless you’ve become a minimalist and sold or donated away your things.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m neither humble-bragging nor complaining about the things surrounding me, I’m just observing how easy it is to overcrowd our spaces—physical and digital—with todos.
The disease (dis-ease) of our time is TMI—too much information.
News is an obvious one. I’ve read (somewhere) that the human mind wasn’t made to hold a worlds worth of bad news.
Another is the work-related todos (that we often put on ourselves) pile around us. Overcrowded schedules. Pulled in a million directions except for the one you want to be focusing on.
So what are we supposed to do about this?
For starters, we can live by the principle “out of sight out of mind.” If we remove the options around us, we can focus in on the priority in front of us. If you’re reading a book, don’t surround yourself with a hundred other books you want / should be reading.
But generally, if you have a task to do, limit your scope to that task and only that task. Everything else should be removed from your site or reach if possible. We’re not banning things, just simply taking away the option of use for the next 30 minutes or so.
If something is bothering you or weighing on you, remove it from your mind temporarily so you can focus on what’s important.
Another thing we can continuously do is ask ourselves, “Is this helpful or unhelpful?
Does having 100+ browser tabs open at one time helpful or unhelpful with what I’m trying to do right now?
Does checking Facebook every 5 minutes improving my life or making it harder. Moderation and minimal-ization are key.
The problem isn’t necessary TMI, but too much information all at once. If we’re trying to focus on a dozen things we end up focusing on nothing.
“I have a theory about the human mind. A brain is a lot like a computer. It will only take so many facts, and then it will go on overload and blow up.”
“Our brains weren’t designed to handle a world’s worth of news at once.” I’ve heard a variation of this idea from multiple people on the internet. (I want to say one was Naval.)
My guess is this is related to the idea of Dunbar’s number, where we have a limited number of people we can maintain a stable social relationship with at once (around 150+), or why our minds glaze over like a jelly donut when statistical estimates reach numbers we can’t comprehend.
In today’s world, we’re all dealing with a case of TMI—too much information. The crazy thing is we mostly do it to ourselves.
Sure, there’s an endless amount of products, services, and ideas marketed to us. And of course, there’s all the social media platforms we use multiple times a day. Email, can’t forget email. YouTube. News. There’s also the information we hear from our personal environment (family, friends, co-workers, classmates, neighbors, etc.) And that doesn’t even start to include the things we are learning and enjoying—blogs (like this one), podcasts, documentaries, courses, mentors, etc.)
Even just writing that last paragraph is giving me anxiety. No wonder we’re all exhausted and on edge!
There are a few strategies that I’ve found to help me keep the sensory overload monsters at bay.
Ask yourself: Is this enabling me or disabling me?
Is this helping me? Does X Y Z information improve my life? Does this make me more capable of helping others and taking positive steps towards my dreams?
Drop anything that doesn’t.
Clean up your digital life/lives.
Imagine for a moment that you dropped everything. You hit unsubscribe on every follower and newsletter. You cleaned up every digital account you have. You organized every digital file you have. A clean slate. A fresh sheet of paper. By trying to know and focus on everything, you overwhelm yourself into a state of casual knowledge and shallow focus.
Curate for quality and wisdom, over quantity, and time-killers.
Your goal should be to surround yourself with a moderate amount of information that we can use to gain knowledge and skills. Ideas that enable or ideas you can act on. Of course, try not to isolate yourself too much—anyone who’s got their hands (or feet) on bubble wrap knows what happens to bubbles before long—they pop. But don’t drink from the firehose just to be “informed.”
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
There’s a pattern of thought I’ve caught myself doing that usually looks something like—
“I can’t do (…) because (…).”
No matter how genuine and realistic the reason after ”because” is, it’s still a limiting thought that accomplishes nothing.
Another way of putting it is “I can’t do something I want to do because something else is getting in the way.”
Sometimes this is a good thing that saves our bacon from harm. “I can’t drive because I’ve had too many drinks.” “I can’t sleep around because I’m married.” “As a resident doctor, I can’t work more than 80 hours because it’s illegal.” “I can’t buy a new laptop because my credit isn’t great.”
Most limitations protect us (and others) from dumb/thoughtless decisions. For example, it sucks not to buy a new laptop—particularly if you need one to survive—but buying one without the means to pay for it will eventually cause more problems in the future.
Breaking limitations is necessary sometimes, but for the most part, limitations protect us from epically failing.
Here’s a built-in example: without proper water, food, or sleep, we can die—or at the very least wreak havoc on our bodies. You can go with quality sleep for a while. We are so resilient we can get used to feeling tired (tired becomes our new normal), but eventually, the bill comes due.
Think about it in your own life. We all know this, but we often ignore this. I know I have. I often work too much without giving myself enough relaxation and rest.
We think we are invincible—until we aren’t.
Some rules need to be broken. As artists and athletes and entrepreneurs and thinkers—boundaries are meant to be broken.
We should always be challenging ourselves and striving to push the boundaries of what we are capable of.
But some rules need to be respected. Nature. Relationship. Ourselves. Our mind, body, and spirit need what it needs. As much as I would enjoy not having to sleep, the thought alone doesn’t give me the power to ignore what’s necessary—not forever anyway.
“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
Whenever I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed, it’s usually because either A) I’m trying too many things at once, B) I’ve said ‘yes’ to something I should have said ‘no’ to, C) My intention/direction is vague and-or D) All the above.
A. Doing too many things at once is something I’m constantly rebalancing. Curiosity can lead you down to thousands of wonderful (and occasionally bizarre) places. This can spark a countless number of ideas and opportunities, but if you let curiosity run on a rampage all the time, you’ll wake up a week later after being lost in a deep Reddit or YouTube rabbit hole.
The important thing is to have a firm grasp on the few major things that are important to you, so you can pare back when you become aware that you’re a few hundred pounds over your elevator capacity, so to speak.
B. This one is similar to A. Saying yes is easy. It’s nice when someone asks you to do something for you. But too many of these, and you’ll end up doing everyone’s work except your own. It’s hard to say no, but it’s essential if you want to still have the time and energy to focus on what’s most important to you.
C. If there’s a centralized theme to this observation, it’s that only having a vague idea of what you want can easily lead you off into a direction you may or may not have wanted to go.
Sometimes vagueness is what you want. You want the surprise and spontaneity that an unknown direction will bring. Traveling (remember traveling?) to a new place, for example. It’s a delight when you can discover an unknown (to you) restaurant that is divine in a city you’ve never been to before. Movie spoilers is another one. If there’s a movie or tv show I’m interested in seeing, I don’t want to know anything about it. Don’t give me the plot. I don’t want any details. I want to be surprised (and hopefully delighted) which I wouldn’t be if I knew what was going to happen beforehand.
But what about when you’ve got a problem you need to fix or when hazy ideas are holding you back?
When in doubt, make a plan.
The method can be simple. Grab some paper and a pen and start writing. Make a todo list. Ask yourself questions. Get specific. Dig. Come up with some potential action steps.
The true benefit of planning is clarity. We’ll rarely actually reach the exact goal we set out to achieve, but taking time to understand our next steps will move us in the right direction.
If we only have a vague sense of what we’re after, how can we possibly know what we can do to get there?
Planning gives us specific actions to take. No—it gives the next action we need to take. Our destination might be completely different after we finish that action, but by then we are ready for the next one.
Planning is about playing the chessboard. The next move is critical, but only when combined with the next several moves and countermoves in the future. The idea isn’t just to have one fixed thing we’re after. We’re thinking about all the potential outcomes—worst-case and best-case scenarios. We’re trying to nudge the outcome in a particular direction, but if it doesn’t work at least we have an idea of what a bad scenario looks like and what we can do to handle it.
“Singleness of purpose is one of the chief essentials for success in life, no matter what may be one’s aim.”
John D. Rockefeller
Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I have a mental/journaling exercise I do where I imagine if I dropped everything on my todo list.
Every task, obligation, book, responsibility, dream, possession, need—I pretend that I lit a match and set all the boats on fire.
Imagine it—you have nothing required of you and your slate is empty.
After picturing it in my mind I’ll begin to feel a weight lifted off of me. We tend to put so much pressure on ourselves. The pressure to perform, the pressure to succeed, the pressure to win. And when we can’t match all of our expectations we pull on even more weight. And it’s not just the work that creates pressure but the added mental weight of our expectations that really buckle our knees.
In fact, how we think about things adds 100x the power to our actions.
Trying to do too much at once is one thing, attempting to do too much while expecting we can do it all adds 100x the weight to our shoulders.
But when you let all the expectations and mental chatter go you will feel free. The weight is gone.
After mentally removing everything from my calendar, I then ask myself two important questions:
What do I actually want to do? (Or put another way, what am I willing to carry?)
And, out of all of my needs and responsibilities, what’s one thing I can focus my efforts on RIGHT NOW that would make me feel better (not overwhelmed) and accomplished?
Overwhelm is solved by not saying yes to everything (especially if you actually want to say no) and by prioritizing and focusing all your efforts on one task and one task only. Yes, your todo list might be a mile long, but that doesn’t matter right now—all that matters is the task at hand.
“Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than in trying to solve them.”
The biggest hurdle to any habit or skill you are learning is an overloaded system. It’s often that we fail because we are trying too hard and too much at once, not because we aren’t trying enough.
Not trying enough is a pitfall that can keep you from starting.
If you ever find yourself never quite being able to get started or find yourself consuming a ton of books, courses, and videos but never putting them in practice, then you have a problem starting. Maybe it’s fear of failure or repeating past mistakes or not living up to your own exceptions of yourself. Whatever the case, put all your strength into taking a step forward, however small. Starting is a physics problem. Things at rest tend to stay at rest. What we need is something that pushes us forward, even just a tiny bit, that gets the ball rolling. Start and build momentum.
It’s often that we fail because we are trying too hard and too much at once, not because we aren’t trying enough.
But if you’re trying but making no headway at all, then you’re likely trying too hard or trying too many things at once. Getting results requires focused energy. You can’t reliably half-*ss success (unreliable success is called luck). We need a strategy that gets us to the end goal 90% of the time and on the right track (or at least somewhere interesting) the other 10%. That starts with limiting your focus.
I can’t tell you how many times I unintentionally derailed myself because I attempted too many things at once. There are only so many things we can do at once (…I’m mostly in permanent denial about this). Even if I had all the energy and money in the world, I’d still run out of time at the end of the day. Focus and priority are our best friends here.
The thing we need to remember is success and opportunity stacks. Neither is assured, but both success and opportunity tend to build upon one another. One success leads to more opportunity leads to more (potential) success etc.
So where do you want to succeed?
What’s a problem you are struggling with that would wipe out most of your other problems if you were to solve it?
“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”
Alexander Graham Bell
There are times in life, where everything feels in doubt. Plateaus are inevitable. Ruts are par for the course. But when life punches us, there’s usually multiple blows. What do you do when you feel stuck in all areas of your life? What do we do when your health sucks AND your work sucks AND your relationships could use some work AND on and on it goes.
Take a deep breath. Maybe take three. Then, look at this:
Marcus Aurelius once wrote, “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive — to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
In Marcus Aurelius day, the universe and its shining glory used to be a daily reminder of how small our problems really are in the grand scheme of things. Nowadays, unless you are in a rural area, only a few of the brightest stars peak out of the night sky to challenge us. But one look at this photo or photos like it can center and ground you to what matters.
The worst part about feeling stuck is how limiting our minds become. Instead of focusing on doing the things we need to do, we spiral in self-pity and waste time feeling bad, overwhelmed and despaired.
“Begin — to begin is half the work, let half still remain; again begin this, and thou wilt have finished.”
The quickest solution I’ve found is to focus all your efforts on one thing and check that off. Each time you check off something that’s been bothering you (whether its having coffee with a friend you’ve been meaning to call, eating health today, etc), the mental rain cloud clears ever so slightly. Our problems / obstacles are bad enough on their own, we don’t need to berate ourselves internally too with negativity, hate and harsh criticism on top of it all.
Focus on completing what’s in front of you. Some might pick the easiest thing to complete first, others might go for the most pressing issue. I usually sit down with myself and see which problem I’m facing is effect the other problems.
What’s the one thing I can work on fixing that will alleviate or perhaps even get rid of all the other problems I’m facing?
It doesn’t really matter what you choose to start with, as long as you start with something. I find it’s often the case that my problems turn into monsters, simply by me ignoring them or not actually taking the time to access them. Here’s a weird analogy: It’s like having a sore or cut in your mouth — it feels massive when you run your tongue over it, but when you open wide and look at it threw a mirror, it’s just a tiny little thing. Things in the rear view appear closer than they are. Problems feel bigger until you get a good look at them.
The last thing to remember is to keep going. Through all the ups and downs we will face in life, as long as we keep going and persevering, things will inevitably unblock themselves. It’s good to know that there are both ups and downs, not just downs. Again, the mind can play tricks on us, and we can skew our life only in the down moments and forget the good.
Remember: you are alive. You can think, you can enjoy and you can love. Perhaps tomorrow we won’t be (you never know). All the more important reason to live and be alive today.
Whenever I feel overwhelmed (like today) I do my best to throw everything out— deadlines, todos, wishes, hopes, expectations, etc — and focus on one thing: the task in front of me.
When there’s nothing but one priority in front of you, then you can disappear in the work and the overwhelm fades away.
First, I clear out my physical space. I tend to believe that ‘a cluttered space is a cluttered mind’ for me personally. When I’m surrounded by distraction and desires of my own making, everything becomes a todo: something I could / should be doing. A stack of books on the desk. A guitar that needs to be restrung. An app that needs to be built. But when I stop and clear my physical space, I begin to feel much better and I can focus on what’s in front of me.
Second, I pick either the simplest task or the highest priority task to focus on. If you’re really feeling overwhelmed, start with the simplest task. Check something off your list. (Even if that todo is ‘make a list’. It counts.) Starting simple allows you to get the cogs turning and wheels moving in the right direction. If you are feeling perky, go for the highest priority task. Ask yourself, “If there was only one thing I could work on today, what todo would make me feel the most accomplished?”
When everything becomes priority, nothing is a priority.
In his book, Essentialism, Greg McKeown talks about the history of the word priority and how ‘priority’, meaning, singular, has come to mean ‘priorities’ plural:
“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to have multiple “first” things. People and companies routinely try to do just that. One leader told me of this experience in a company that talked of “Pri-1, Pri-2, Pri-3, Pri-4, and Pri-5.” This gave the impression of many things being the priority but actually meant nothing was.”
Lastly, if you finish one thing today, congratulations. You are facing overwhelm head on. Now, pick another task. Focus all of your efforts on this one now. Don’t add two new priorities — just one.
One and done — repeat.
This works really well within the task you’re focusing on too. Break your work into the smallest pieces possible and focus on getting each piece done separately, one at a time. If email is making you go bald, focus on one email at a time, not the 10,000+ emails in your inbox. If writing is overwhelming you, write one word. Now write two. Now ten. Work, errands, art — one and done.
And if none of that works, I call it and give myself a break. Walk away for a while. Go move your body. Exercise. Get some sun. Go meet a friend. Don’t let overwhelm win and paint you into a cage for the entire day. If you can’t get anything done today, fine. There’s always tomorrow. At least go have some fun. You are in control here. Go prove it to yourself.